The leatherback turtle is in “precipitous decline”. But Trinidad, uniquely, has the capability to reverse an alarming regional “collapse”. The multi billion dollar port in Toco may have been “shelved” because of Covid-19, but the application for a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) for the project is very much alive. If granted it may well scupper the leatherback’s survival chances and any prospects for sustainable tourism in the north east. As for Toco’s unique coral reefs, they would be obliterated.

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THERE’S A 1995 PHOTOGRAPH of Professor Scott Eckert, the Director of The Wider Caribbean Sea Tur­tle Con­ser­va­tion Net­work (WIDE­CAST), attaching the first satellite transmitter ever attached to a leatherback, on a Trinidad beach in the dark.

Assisting in this task, kneeling in the sand by the giant sea turtle, is none other than Dr Keith Rowley.

2020 Leatherback Population Assessment NWA Stock slides H:R

In the 25 intervening years, the fortunes of our Prime Minister have risen in  inverse proportion to those of the leatherback turtles’, which have plummeted. 

Now that he is Prime Minister, Dr Rowley has the opportunity to continue the good work he started on that Trinidad beach so many years ago and help save the leatherback.

Because today the very existence of the northwest Atlantic (NWA) leatherback turtle may only be salvaged by the actions of Trinidad and Tobago. 

It is this country that provides the leatherback’s last best hope.

But that lifeline could be cut by a combination of the Toco port construction and operation, and continued mortality by their entanglement in fishing nets, currently causing around 3,000 deaths a year in Trinidad waters.

“The turtles aren’t being slaughtered on the beaches anymore, they’re being slaughtered in the sea,” said Caribbean Discovery Tours’ Stephen Broadbridge.

IMG_2408 (1)The local fishing industry is responsible for around 3,000 leatherback turtle deaths a year, with over 1,000 egg-bearing turtles killed

Eckert, who is the foremost authority on NWA leatherback turtles, told me: “The precipitous decline of the NWA leatherback is extremely alarming. 

“My message is that the entire Northwest Atlantic population of leatherbacks is collapsing.”

He told the Express last year, “I can’t imagine a more foolish project than to put a port with large vessels steaming through a major assembly area for leatherback sea turtles”.

Now he is repeating that message.

“The importance of the Galera Point region (off Toco) to leatherback sea turtles must be taken into account in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) . . . the two largest nesting populations for the NWA leatherback are located on either side of the proposed port site.” 

But the area of study by NIDCO’s UK-based EIA consultants ERM does not include any of the offshore habitat areas of concern outlined by Eckert. 

He told the Express last year that “Galera Point is a mating assembly area for leatherbacks from February to May and is an area where female leatherbacks frequent between nesting events.”

He was adamant that area “immediately offshore of the proposed (port) facility, a leatherback hotspot, must be considered in any EIA”. 

But Galera Point is not.

“Given what is happening in other areas where this species nests, Trinidad may be its last best hope, so careful management of this nesting population is particularly important,” Eckert emphasised.

“My biggest concerns are that increased large vessel traffic in the area will force turtles to displace away from this (Toco) area into areas that are less conducive to the needs of the species, and that vessel strikes of turtles will increase.

“I am also concerned that increased traffic and development in the area will cause further degradation of coastal ecosystems, particularly those associated with the maritime forests and leatherback nesting beaches,” he warned.

And then there is concern about the noise emanating from shipping, and 83 decibels of port construction pile driving. The December port “consultation” learned that such noise underwater could be heard as far away as Maracas.

Eckert said: “From our work on hearing capabilities of leatherbacks we know that leatherbacks will hear the vessels.  What we don’t know is if they will try to avoid them.

“If they avoid the area due to increased noise levels they may displace to areas more dangerous or less appropriate. If they don’t avoid the area they will be prone to being struck.

“The good news is that Trinidad may be able to save the species in the NW Atlantic.  

Critical offshore habitats for the leatherback sea turtlesGraphic by Scott Eckert showing the concentration of leatherback turtles around Toco

“Due to years of good nesting and habitat protection (now threatened by illegal mining operations on the east coast) and highly capacitated conservation organisations managing the nesting beaches, the nesting population of Trinidad is declining at a slower rate than others.”

Consternation about the leatherback turtle status has already led to its reclassification by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List (IUCN Red List) to “endangered”. 

WIDECAST are to make representations to the IUCN to have them declared “critically endangered”. 

And concern is shared at the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) who regard WIDECAST’s leatherback status report as “alarming”. 

The IMA attended a meeting with Nature Seekers and other key stakeholders on 10th January at the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) office. It included Clarence Rambharat, Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries. 

Eckert, who had flown into Trinidad, gave them his report and many recommendations, including to “mitigate or prohibit actions that might harm offshore critical habitats”.

He told me another mitigation measure should be the creation of Marine Protected Areas where the offshore presence of leatherbacks is highest. The Toco region would be an obvious candidate.

What of the EMA’s role? 

It is their responsibility to enforce protection of nesting beaches and offshore habitats.

It is also up to them to decide if the EIA into the Toco Port warrants the approval of a Certificate of Environmental Clearance.

The EMA, under the terms of its own Environmentally Sensitive Species Rules (ESSs) 2001, is obligated to protect 10 species, including five sea turtle species, of which the leatherback is one.

Leatherbacks being migratory creatures, what we do in Trinidad has a regional and global effect.

The obligation of the EMA to protect the endangered leatherback turtle is indisputable: not only under its own rules under the Environmental Management Act, but under international laws and conventions to which Trinidad and Tobago are signatories.

The first is the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The second is The Cartegena Convention, Protocol concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife to the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (SPAW Protocol).

The third is the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, The Bonn Convention.

And the fourth is the Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere.

It would be contrary to the basis of the EMA’s very existence to approve the construction and operation of a large, “multipurpose” port in the middle of this critical habitat. 

Semantics by NIDCO and their consultants cannot disguise the duty this country has in saving the NWA leatherback turtle; to say nothing of the significance to the tourism industry this ancient creature represents.

And for Dr Rowley, there is the opportunity to show his appearance on that beach so many years ago was no publicity stunt, but a heartfelt desire to save Trinidad’s leatherback turtles, and Toco’s tourism potential.

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TRINIDAD’S TURTLES – A PRICELESS COMMODITY

Turtle tourism is essential to the viability of all the small hotels and guest houses operating in Trinidad’s north east, and to those local communities. 

The success of turtle tourism in Trinidad is held up worldwide as a beacon of community-based participation and conservation.

In 2013 the US-based Sea Turtle Conservancy said Trinidad was likely the world’s leading tourist destination for people to see leatherbacks.

Grande Riviere receives an estimated 20,000 visitors a year, drawn solely because of nesting leatherbacks. Locals pay TT$35 and foreigners TT$95.

In 2013 the local Turtle Village Trust (TVT) said that such tourism brought in $8.2 million annually. The influx of visitors, local and foreign, to Trinidad’s north east coast jumped from 6,500 in 2000 to over 60,000 in 2012. 

In 2013 TVT director Dr Allan Bachan said turtle tourism had the potential to surpass Carnival as a revenue earner.

Visitor numbers to Matura fluctuate between 12-16,000 every year, of which approximately 90 percent are locals. The cost is to see them nest is TT$20 per local adult, and US$20 per foreign adult.

Children are free, and they come in large numbers, but the value of those visits in educational terms is priceless.

TOCO’S REEFS: UNIQUE, PRECIOUS, IRREPLACEABLE 

Denis McSweeny has lived in Toco for nearly 30 years. He is a keen amateur naturalist who delights in walks along its pretty coastline with its abundant birdlife. 

The area “he has particularly grown to love is the precise shoreline that the port is planned to occupy”, he says.

Denis’s shoreline walks have yielded many riches, among them “trumpet tritons, penshells, precious wentletraps, olive shells, sea potatoes and various species of sea urchins”. 

He says that in the waters of the bay have been found “flying gurnard, long nosed batfish, mantis shrimp, various cow, pipe and box fishes – all of which are evidence of the fringing reef in that area.

“In current ecological terms, destroying or damaging a reef is the biggest crime you can commit. The time for dominion over nature is long past. We need to develop in harmony with nature otherwise the fall-out will be colossal,” charges Denis.

slate pencil sea urchinThe beautiful slate pencil sea urchin in Toco’s Grande L’Anse Bay

Dr. Peter Roopnarine, Curator of Geology at the Department of Invertebrate Zoology & Geology at the institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability of the California Academy of Sciences, was in agreement.

He said that at the recently concluded Ocean Sciences Meeting 2020, “the summary is that the oceans are in very bad shape. Our best estimates now, and I am being more optimistic than many colleagues, is that there might be very little habitable area for corals by 2100.

“Our best hope is to protect as much diversity as possible, to protect as many areas as possible”.

But Minister of Works and Transport Rohan Sinanan said in parliament the port “will not lead to a decrease in species diversity in North East Trinidad”.

Dr Stanton Belford, who has studied the reefs in Grande L’Anse Bay for 20 years, vehemently disagrees. He wrote a report on the reefs in 2019 which, up until now, has been ignored by NIDCO and their consultants ERM.

IMG_6181Dr Stanton Belford in Toco

“The minister is definitely wrong on this one, and as for the services of ERM, my view quite frankly is one of dismay at their utter unprofessionalism,” said Belford.

“Personally I dislike confrontation, but since the reefs need a voice to defend them, then I’m gladly throwing mine into the ring.”

He told me: “The fact that at the Toco consultation it was mentioned that they may have to build an artificial coral reef suggests that they know that the Grande L’Anse reefs will be 100% destroyed.”

Dr Belford said he has seen artificial reefs in Jordan and he knows how expensive and challenging it is to build and maintain them.

He explained the importance of the reefs in the port area. 

“New genetic analysis of species, such as sea urchins and zoanthids (soft corals), are now only enlightening us on the intricate biodiversity of the area; new genetic information for reefs along the northeastern coast of Trinidad that is globally unique.

“We lose this if we build the port. 

“I am presenting genetic research from Toco reef organisms later this year at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Bremen, Germany. That’s how important Toco’s reefs are.”

And it’s not just the reefs that will be lost, explained Belford.

“More and more students have become interested in doing research at Toco reefs. We lose student scientific interest in marine biology if the port is built.”

He lamented the haste to build the port when there was so much information about the reef organisms and genetics still to gather.

“I need time. The reefs need time. I see now the rush for time to build the port: time to hastily, untruthfully report on no biodiversity at Grande L’Anse; time to hire a foreign entity to tell us what we have here in T&T. 

“Are we so dependent on foreigners to tell us what we have in our own environment?

“Come on, Minister, EMA, NIDCO. We are so much more better than that. Stop feeding the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago lies and deception.”

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